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Tuesday, November 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Racetrack plans fall apart
By Emily Heffter
With project costs rising and time running out to propose a financing deal in the next legislative session, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon said he and Marysville officials withdrew from the talks yesterday because of concerns that the track would be too big a risk for taxpayers.
Florida-based developer International Speedway Corp., while acknowledging the end of negotiations with the county and Marysville, said it would continue to look for a site in the Pacific Northwest.
"While we're disappointed that the site in Marysville was not feasible, our enthusiasm for the area is in no way dampened," said H. Lee Combs, ISC's senior vice president of corporate development, citing continued interest from other communities.
And Reardon said he wasn't absolutely certain the corporation was truly finished considering a track site in Snohomish County. ISC could be posturing, he said: "I've been in politics long enough to know that you never say never."
ISC, which builds NASCAR tracks around the country, wouldn't invest enough money in the Marysville project, Reardon said. He worried that taxpayers would end up footing most of the bill for the proposed 7/8-mile racetrack if it weren't as successful as proponents hoped.
Snohomish County had been negotiating for about two months to bring the racetrack to 850 acres of farmland between Marysville and Arlington. The corporation initially offered to invest $50 million in the $300 million project and planned to ask the state Legislature to come up with a financing package to pay for the rest, plus about $70 million in needed transportation improvements.
"They came in at $50 million; that was too low and ... we couldn't get above that," Reardon said.
In addition, he said he asked ISC for a guarantee that the track could attract a coveted Nextel Cup race, and ISC wouldn't give him one.
"As public officials, our foremost obligation to Snohomish County is to make sure that this project is financially sound and does not put taxpayers on the hook," he said.
"At this point, we are not confident that what's being worked out has the safeguards to protect our taxpayers."
Snohomish County Council Chairman John Koster said he believes the deal had been off for several weeks.
"We've had weeks pass here where there's been no movement from ISC, so I've had a feeling in my gut that this has been over for a few weeks," he said.
Property owners have not been contacted about selling their land.
And state Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Mukilteo, who was expected to play a key role in the Legislature's consideration of the proposal, said he called an ISC lobbyist then waited a week for a returned phone call.
An ISC spokesman said last night that the cost of the project had skyrocketed and it didn't make sense to make the necessary improvements to the site.
John Graham, vice president of business affairs, wouldn't go into details, but Marysville officials have said that building on the site would have required drainage improvements and re-routing a salmon-bearing stream. In addition, the site is on top of an aquifer and a gas pipeline.
Track opponents were giddy about the decision last night.
Leaders of Snohomish County Citizens Against the Racetrack, or SCAR, had planned a strategy session at a member's house last night, but after hearing the news, member Eyleen Shouman said: "I guess in the last half-hour it's turned into, I don't know, a party."
SCAR, made up mostly of nearby homeowners, argued that a NASCAR track would be bad for the environment, cause traffic and noise problems, and interfere with the nearby Arlington Airport.
Proponents of the NASCAR track said the facility would be an economic boon for the county. A study early this year indicated the track would bring between $87.3 million and $121.8 million annually in new spending and tax revenue, and create more than 1,300 new jobs.
With Marysville off the table, Graham said ISC will resume conversations with other finalists in the Pacific Northwest and also look for new sites. Before Snohomish County was chosen, two sites near Portland and sites near Bremerton and near Yelm, Thurston County, were in the running.
"We are very serious about a speedway in the Pacific Northwest, and we remain enthusiastically committed to making that a reality," Graham said. "We certainly took a very, very serious look at Snohomish [County] and Marysville."
Oregon Sports Authority CEO Drew Mahalic, who was leading the effort to attract ISC to the Portland area, was surprised to hear that talks had stalled in Snohomish County.
"Our door's always open," he said.
Marysville chief administrative officer Mary Swenson said she was disappointed that the track deal had fallen through, but she expressed optimism about Marysville's future.
"When I look at the notoriety that Marysville has gotten through this ... it's been a great, great learning experience," she said.
Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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